Denver: Desire, deficits and our light rail

By John Andrews, The Denver Post perspective – 5/12/2007

Metro Denver’s ill-fated love affair with the Regional Transportation
District has dragged on for a third of a century. Like many a
dysfunctional relationship, it has featured cosmetics and broken
promises on one side, gullibility and an open checkbook on the other.
Can this marriage be saved?

While the cycle of hope and betrayal has flopped as public policy, it
might fly as theater: “A Desire Named Streetcar.” The latest
embarrassment is the looming possibility of huge budget deficits for the
FasTracks light-rail plan, hilariously paired with Pollyanna assurances
from RTD officials. Tennessee Williams was never this entertaining.

True, these trains of tomorrow aren’t quite the trolleys of old, and
their tracks don’t all share streets – though some do. But the
irrational desire has long been with us for a rail system that gets the
other guy onto transit so traffic is less congested for your car.

RTD started collecting sales tax in the early 1970s on the promise of
building such trains by 1980. Those 93 miles of rail never happened, nor
did the tax cut that was to follow them. Decades later, the agency
finally built the Five Points line, then Southwest, then Southeast,
without increasing taxes. Voters in 2004 approved FasTracks, a 67
percent tax hike to construct 119 miles of light rail on six lines by
2017. But deficits now have the tracks going nowhere fast.

A preliminary estimate by RTD staff in February predicted that the $4.7
billion construction cost could become $6.5 billion. In April, general
manager Cal Marsella conceded that “revenues are coming down pretty
fast.” A billion dollars short on the income side, plus $1.8 billion in
expense overruns, suddenly leaves the project barely half funded. The
choice facing taxpayers and commuters appears to be either thwarted
desire (yet again) or heavier alimony.

Au contraire, says Marsella. “We’re still going to deliver the program
as advertised,” he insisted in a TV debate on April 20. Maybe even
better than advertised, if you believe his sales pitch in a front-page
Post story on April 15. There, the glib GM touted a previously
unmentioned “maglev” supertrain to DIA and a private- partnership escape
route from the budget trap. Marsella enthuses that the private angle
“opens opportunities for any and all alternatives” to rescue FasTracks.

As a privatization advocate, I’d like to believe that. But according to
mass-transit analyst Randall O’Toole of the Thoreau Institute, the key
is giving a private partner both a downside for cost control and an
upside for profits. He warns that if Denver lets bidders pass through
their overruns, as was done for the “design-build-operate- maintain”
deals in New Jersey, Minnesota, and his home state of Oregon, taxpayers
gain nothing.

With unions trying to reclaim bus routes that used to be competitively
bid, tough contracting in RTD is out. So color me skeptical. O’Toole
also notes that airport lines are the poorest performers in any rail

I like his recommended alternative to rail in a 2004 study, bus-rapid
transit (BRT) lines and high-occupancy/toll lanes. HOT lanes on north
Interstate 25 are relieving congestion and yielding double the predicted
revenue, as the Colorado Tolling Enterprise chairman wrote in a letter
to The Post last Monday.

In the statute letting voters OK RTD’s big (but now insufficient) tax
hike, a provision allows for its repeal in the same manner. We should
repeal the higher tax this November. The old rate, six-tenths instead of
a full penny, could fund the BRT-HOT approach and leave us money ahead.
For mobility, Coloradans don’t want to be like Blanche in “Streetcar,”
dependent on the kindness of strangers.

We prefer the freedom of our own vehicles, thank you.

* John Andrews (andrewsjk@…) is a fellow with the Claremont Institute
and a past president of the Colorado Senate. He hosts “Backbone Radio”
on Sundays at 5 p.m. on 710-KNUS

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©2007 Coalition On Sustainable Transportation